Book Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

Steeped in African culture, Obioma takes you on a journey about sibling relationships that is simultaneously heart-warming and heart-wrenching – a CUB must-read!

In the small town of Akure in western Nigeria, four young brothers take advantage of their strict father’s absence from home to go fishing at a forbidden local river. However, whilst at the river, they encounter a dangerous local madman, Abulu, who predicts that the oldest boy, Ikenna, will be killed by one of his brothers. At first, the brothers laugh the prediction off, believing it to be just another one of Abulu’s mad rantings. But it soon becomes apparent that this prophecy is far from the supernatural as a tragic chain of events is unleashed that is almost of mythic proportions.

The prose of this novel is lovely to read as Obioma’s descriptions of landscapes and characters, such as the brothers’ father and mother, are full of deep and meaningful metaphors and similes. These techniques really help to give you character depth and you conjure up an image of these characters. The chapter names are very clever and apt in building the characters in your mind as they reflect the person they are about by likening them to animals. 

Historical events, such as the election riots in the early 1990s, form a nice frame around the narrative. You feel totally transported to that time and place in Nigeria as you follow the brothers on their travels. The plot moves along at a good pace and the tension soon builds from the moment the brothers meet Abulu right up until the very end of the novel. The culture is a large feature of the novel and you are completely immersed in it which makes your reading experience that much more delightful. There are words from different dialects and languages, besides English, which really authenticate the Nigerian heritage of the book and give you a greater and deeper understanding of, for instance, the Igbo culture. 

Sibling relationships are at the heart of the novel and it is tragic to watch some of them gradually disintegrate, particularly as I have a close relationship with my own brother. However, there are moments that are truly heart-warming between some of the brothers; for example, the protagonist, Ben, idolises his older brothers, Ikenna and Boja, and the way he believes what they say, purely because they are older than him, is very touching.

For me, Ikenna was the most troubling character as you witness him transform from a sensible, good example of a brother to a hateful and vengeful sibling, for apparently no logical reason. The supernatural plays a large part in Ikenna’s metamorphosis (to use a word from the book), and you really begin to wonder whether the madman Abulu is actually mad, whether it is pure coincidence that what he prophesies comes true, or if he does have mystical powers. Although Abulu appears rather infrequently, his words set a harrowing and eerie undertone from about a third of the way through the novel onwards.  It is frightening how his words, which the characters and the reader take in jest, turn out to be true. 

The chapter entitled ‘The Spiders’ was very moving as the spiders are a clever metaphor for grief. My heart ached with sympathy for the boys’ mother who was suffering so much that she temporarily disconnected from reality. Such sorrow is universal for any mother who has lost a child and it is these kinds of experiences that unite people from different cultures and countries, and create a deep and heartfelt understanding.

Overall, The Fishermen is a touching novel about sibling relationships and what can happen to them as a result of the smallest event. Steeped in African culture, Obioma takes you on a journey that is simultaneously heart-warming and heart-wrenching.

Rating: 5/5

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